Legislators questioned the findings of a presidential panel reviewing whether NASA can return Americans to the moon by 2020, taking up the issue Tuesday for the first time since the panel submitted a summary report to the White House last week.
The report spelled out the severity of NASA's budget shortfall. It said the agency needs an additional $3 billion a year if it expects to keep on schedule the Constellation program, the set of rockets and spacecraft that will replace the aging shuttle fleet.
But the agency's history of inadequate funding is well known, said U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who heads a House space and aeronautics panel.
"I'm frustrated by what I read. In fact, I'm pretty angry," said Giffords, who is married to an astronaut.
Giffords said she expected the report to recommend ways to advance the Constellation program, in which NASA has invested several years and billions of dollars. But the presidential panel gave only "glancing attention to Constellation -- even referring to it in the past tense."
She called the options the panel did provide "a set of alternatives that in one sense look almost like cartoons," lacking cost or scheduling details.
Norm Augustine, the chairman of the panel, defended the summary report. During testimony before the House Science and Technology Committee, he reminded legislators that the White House advised his group against making specific recommendations, but to offer only options and alternatives.
"You spoke as if we have decided to stop the existing (Constellation) program," Augustine told Giffords. "We made no such recommendation. So I respect your feelings, but I must question your facts."
Giffords wasn't the only committee member disappointed by Augustine's panel.
"What we were expecting from your report was something that might be cheaper, or more cost-effective, and we didn't get it," said U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. "I was hoping, frankly, that we would be getting more creative alternatives rather than just alternatives that would leave us in the same situation -- $3 billion short."
But Rep. Pete Olson, a Texas Republican, praised the work of Augustine's panel, saying the group provided Congress with a wake-up call.
"Basically, you threw cold water on our faces, and got us to look at this program realistically and say, 'If we want to go for it, we need to develop the resources,' " he said.
In its summary, the Augustine panel said it doesn't expect the next-generation Ares I rocket and Orion capsule to be ready to return astronauts into space until 2017, two years behind schedule. Another option would be to continue flying the space shuttle, which is scheduled to retire at the end of next year, at a cost of at least $2.5 billion, he said.
Former NASA administrator Michael Griffin told legislators they had the power to change the direction of the agency.
"The last president did not request the funds necessary. The one before that did not request the funds necessary. The current president is not requesting the funds necessary," he said. "I believe the question for Congress will be, 'Do you wish to go along with that, or not?'"
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